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Should Apple split up iTunes on OS X?

These days everyone seems to be talking about how complicated iTunes is and how Apple should give it a clean-sheet rewrite. This is not new, but the argument has certainly intensified ever since the introduction of iCloud Photo Library and Apple Music. For one recent example, see Don't order the fish by Marco Arment. I was listening to John Gruber's The Talk Show episode 127 earlier today (a little bit late to the game, yeah), and the complexity argument was brought up yet again.

I just can't buy that argument. (Disclaimer: in this post I'm talking about UI/UX, not the backend.) Granted, there are many tabs in iTunes. There's one for music, one for movies, one for TV shows, one for podcasts, one for iOS apps, one for each iOS device currently connected via USB, and so on. You can hide some of them if you don't use them. And for each of these tabs there are probably subtabs, and occasionally a sidebar. This might sound rather intimidating to the faint-hearted, but if you really dive into iTunes, you'll find that 99% of the functionalities you'll ever need to find or organize your stuff are under four clicks away1, and editing metadata (including batch editing) is pretty easy too. All in all, iTunes as it currently stands is both powerful (too many things on the plate, in some people's words) and not badly complicated, in the sense that you can certainly find your way around if you try. Some would argue that some of iTunes' features get shuffled into different places from version to version; yeah that's annoying, but in reality it usually takes less than five minutes to find all I need in a new version.

For people who just buy their content from iTunes Store2 and never organize again, there are probably too many unnecessary subtabs and sidebars, but hey, do they need to touch these controls at all? There's a search bar that works reasonably well accross the entire content library3. For people who do organize their stuff, or do routinely import music and videos from outside, or do sync their devices via USB, most of those controls are great and necessary.

One disclaimer, by the way: maybe Apple Music made things more confusing. I don't know because I didn't even sign up for the free trial.

Now think about splitting up iTunes. As on iOS, you get a Music app, a Videos app, a Podcast app, an iTunes U app, and a separate iTunes Store app. Probably yet another one for managing your iOS devices, since that belongs to none of the above. So, what do you save by having all those apps? You save one click when you switch focus to another area? Well, not even that at times: now you need to switch apps. Moreover, what if I use several of those routinely (I do)? Do I have to keep all of them on my dock? Even if I don't keep them in Dock, as long as they're open they'll show up anyway, and that would be beyond horrible for people who care about their docks. This is my current dock:

My current Dock. Note that I have the old red iTunes icon from 12.1, because I really can't stand the white one from 12.2. I know that's the future in El Capitan and iOS 9 (it looks reasonable on iOS 9 by the way, I've been using public betas since day one), but I'll just be stubborn this time, without much real cost.

My current Dock. Note that I have the old red iTunes icon from 12.1, because I really can't stand the white one from 12.2. I know that's the future in El Capitan and iOS 9 (it looks reasonable on iOS 9 by the way, I've been using public betas since day one), but I'll just be stubborn this time, without much real cost.

iTunes, where I playback music and manage my entire content library4, nicely takes up only one slot, which is the most reasonable thing to have. On iOS where apps can't have too many tabs or subtabs, it certainly makes sense to split the functionalities; on OS X where you do have space to host those tabs or subtabs, I fail to see how complexity warrants refactoring, especially when refactoring would introduce other problems.5 6

Speaking of complexity, iTunes isn't even remotely as complex as, say, Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. Those are of course nightmares to most people, but the point is that iTunes isn't a nightmare — it's pretty manageable, especially to power users and developers, who are the ones complaining most loudly. Also, nothing can beat the complexity of the web browser. We browse all kinds of web pages and use all kinds of web apps everyday, all inside the browser, which can hold arbitrarily many tabs with completely different UIs. We don't complain about the browser. Then why do we complain about iTunes, which is a consistent mix of essential functionalities across different areas of our multimedia experience?

It's true that everyone has their iTunes pet peeves. For instance, I hate the stupid new icon and the useless Apple Music related tabs that I can't turn off in 12.2. The biggest gripe I have with 12.2 is probably the small, hardly noticeable rotating circle at the far upper-right corner of the window,7 which now hosts the progress indicators of certain IO operations such as downloads and copying files to devices. To me it's a step backwards. Previously downloads was in a separate popup window and file copying had a place in the central area, visible whichever app you are in, but now I have to look for the visual indicator and all of a sudden remember that oh, it has been moved to that remote corner; even then I have to keep focus on iTunes, or the progress indicator dropdown would disappear. It seems all random that the progress of device syncing (and any copy operations initiated as part of the sync) should be front and center, while manually copying files to apps should retreat to the corner. Nevertheless, these minor or not-so-minor annoyances (honestly annoyances exist in almost every app) doesn't justify an iOS-like approach, which has its own drawbacks. I would be really mad if one day I need to run multiple apps just to manage the stuff on my phone.

  1. Just a rough estimate off the top of my head; please don't challenge me or hold me responsible.↩︎

  2. I'm actually increasingly inclined to this approach. Having lossless music shipped on CDs (sometimes with extra goodies) is nice, but having age-old CDs and goodies lying around, taking up space and gathering dust is less enjoyable.↩︎

  3. "Reasonably well" at least on my not-so-large content library.↩︎

  4. I should probably say "my entire content library visible to iOS" instead, since my non-ITMS, DRM-free videos are mostly not in iTunes. It certainly can't keep my Matroska videos anyway.↩︎

  5. For instance, where should music videos live?↩︎

  6. By the way, Microsoft seems to have a split experience in Windows 10. Do people like it? The answer seems to be no.↩︎

  7. Previously what would appear in that corner is the downloads icon, but anyone who has experienced both versions would tell you that the downloads icon is at least much more visible than the new rotating circle. The downloads icon was a dark gray blob, whereas the new thing is a few thin arcs.↩︎